With drumbeats and claps, fists in the air, hundreds marched through the heart of Philadelphia on Friday in celebration of Juneteenth, shouting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
Their chants filled city streets on the 155th anniversary of the day the last enslaved Black people in the United States learned they were free — and on the 21st day since this summer’s protests against police brutality and racial injustice began in Philadelphia.
“It’s incredibly emotional, it’s incredibly powerful. It’s something that’s owed to my ancestors,” said Caroline Dorsey, who demonstrated with her family at Eakins Oval and was glad the city had declared Juneteenth a holiday this year. “To have June 19 celebrated at such a massive level in the city of Philadelphia, the city that is my home ... words can’t describe how proud I am.”
Across the region, Black Americans recognized the day as one of celebration, reflection, and action. Demonstrations blocked traffic at City Hall as about 100 people of varying races walked arm in arm along the streets in the afternoon. Black men marched through West Philadelphia in silence. At a fashion protest, models showed off the creations of Black designers at Independence Mall.
“To have a holiday that everybody’s recognizing now, it means that Black lives matter in America,” said Antoine Mapp, leader of the West Powelton Drummers — the drum line for the 76ers — who marched in Friday’s demonstration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s a change in the right direction. It doesn’t mean the change is over.”
After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took 2½ years for word to reach Galveston, Texas, where Black people remained in bondage. The holiday marks June 19, 1865, when they learned they had been freed.
Since, the day has been celebrated by Black Americans with cookouts, parades, fireworks, and festivals. And it was experiencing a resurgence with widespread celebrations years before this summer’s protests sparked a national reckoning over systemic racism.
Hundreds rallied and celebrated in cities across America in an unprecedented national observation of the day. Some major companies and local governments gave employees the day off; the Eagles, Phillies, and Sixers closed offices, as did the City of Philadelphia. Members of Congress introduced legislation to make it a national holiday; New Jersey lawmakers proposed designating it a state holiday. (Pennsylvania did so last year.)
The demonstrations Friday were among many events planned in the region this weekend.
In Cape May, organizers celebrated the virtual opening of the new Harriet Tubman museum. Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection marked the day with a virtual jazz concert recorded on June 19, 2014, by Philadelphia jazz man Bootsie Barnes, who died in April of the coronavirus. In West and North Philadelphia, Cooks for the Culture, a Philadelphia organization that spotlights Black chefs, handed out food, water, and personal supplies to people in need in honor of the holiday. Black Lives Matter Philadelphia held an evening celebration in Malcolm X Park.
“A lot of people don’t understand that July 4 for them and July 4 for us looked totally different at that time,” said Musa Bey, 32, a general in the Revolutionary Black Panther Party of Philadelphia, which was founded in 2017. “So, this is our true Independence Day, and I encourage every Black person and every person in the African diaspora to celebrate Juneteenth, because this was when you were rightfully free.”
Earlier in the day, about 200 Black men dressed in black T-shirts marched down 52nd Street to Malcolm X Park from Girard Avenue in the Brotherly Love Juneteenth Silent March 2020. Walking through West Philadelphia, the men stayed largely quiet; every now and then, a call-and-response rang out.
After one man yelled “Ago!” — “Listen!” or “Attention!” in the Twi language of West Africa — others shouted back: “Ame!” — “I am listening.”
After entering the park, Taj Murdock, CEO of TEAM Inc., who came up with the idea for the march, told the men that today, they represent strength, resilience, and courage. But for them to help the community, he said, “it’s time to heal.”
”Release that pain, brother,” he yelled before the group let out a loud, powerful roar. Murdock ripped off his face mask, which had the words “Self Doubt” taped onto it, to symbolize letting go of his own self-doubt.
Philadelphia Police Inspector Derrick Wood, commander of the Southwest Division and a participant in TEAM‘s Men of Courage mentorship program, marched with the demonstrators in a black T-shirt and jeans. He said police stand with the Black marchers, and said about 25 officers in regular clothes had participated in the event.
“We support police reform,” Wood said at Malcolm X Park. “We are all Black men and Black women first. ,.. We support the people who protest 100%.”
March co-organizer Kyle Morris said the group would hold an event July 25 to help clean up a lot and playground at 52nd and Wyalusing Avenue to turn it into a gardening space and improved play area.
In Old City, the fashion models paraded Black designers’ work in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
“With everything going on, I just wanted Black women to feel like they’re queens,” said designer Miss Glam, whose given name is Melody Andrews and who is based in Philadelphia.
“This is not entertainment!” one woman yelled as they walked on Market Street with supporters. “This is our lives!”
At the Colored Girls Museum in Germantown, dancer and artist Misty Sol led a discussion about freedom and healing through art. It was part of a four-day festival created by Sol to celebrate the roots of Black art.
“We were talking about the legacy and the strength of our ancestors, as we see a lot of young people involved in current protests and struggles,” Sol said. “We have to look to our elders and our ancestors to see how far their vernacular practices and art have brought us. We stand on their shoulders. But the younger people have that new energy to carry it forward.”